I. If It Ain’t Broke
Modern Orthodox Jews take any of three approaches in evaluating the future role of women in religious ritual: status quo, deepening roles, halakhic egalitarianism (link – I prefer the first). I once heard a centrist intellectual describe the mainstream approach, the middle of the three, as muddling through. Mainstream Modern Orthodoxy plays it by ear, experimenting in small steps without committing to bigger, potentially disruptive changes. R. Chaim Navon’s Gesher Benos Ya’akov provides a conceptual framework for this approach, a method for muddling. Using his ample halakhic expertise and philosophical sophistication, R. Navon proposes a comprehensive attitude for evaluating the changing roles of women in Orthodox Judaism.
R. Navon’s primary contribution is his utilization of conservative political theory, particularly Edmund Burke, to describe halakhic attitudes (ch. 4, adapted from this article). We Orthodox Jews are optimists, despite our frequent cynical complaints. We believe that the past was good, the present is good and the future will also be good if we allow it. Torah society as we know it is morally, spiritually and socially wholesome even if imperfect. Burke wrote, “Society is a contract between the past, the present and those yet unborn.” We seek to preserve this source of goodness in our lives, so our children and grandchildren can continue in the Torah lifestyle.
Sudden religious change lacks humility, an overconfidence in your social theories which must be tested because they may cause unintended damage. Any change we institute to address either changing times or existing flaws must not disturb the good society we have inherited. We are caretakers of the Torah, a small group carrying out a divine mission in the face of overwhelming societal pressure. While we must adapt to survive, we may only do so cautiously lest we lose what we already have. Burke was skeptical of social engineering attempts because human intellect is limited and can never fully predict the consequences of a social change. He instead advocated gradualism, using a light touch to prevent damaging society. Deviating uncharacteristically from his Modern Hebrew, R. Navon summarizes his philosophy with the apt cliche: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (p. 118). But sometimes it is broken and then we must proceed with caution, we must muddle through.
II. Torah and Change
How do we know when something needs fixing? When we see a practice that contradicts our values, we must analyze the source of those values. Our attitudes, R. Navon declares, must emerge from halakhah, the practical manifestation of eternal Torah values (p. 21). Everything else is vague and subject to wildly divergent interpretation. Only Jewish law faithfully conveys the specific attitudes of God and our holy sages. However, this approach is laden with difficulties, which R. Navon attempts to resolve. What about laws that seem to contradict clear Torah values? What about historical precedents of circumventing laws? The Torah permits polygamy, commands killing Amalekites and invalidates women’s testimony in court. Are these Torah values we must embrace?
R. Navon distinguishes between essential Torah commands and peripheral laws (p. 37). Which laws reflect time-bound considerations, such as the Rambam’s forbidding women leaving their homes more than twice a month? Which are intended to counter worse moral failures, such as the captive woman (yefas to’ar)? Perhaps the permission for polygamy falls under that latter category.
When we find laws that do not reflect eternal Torah values, we still cannot dismiss them. A Torah command is a command. However, in such situations we humbly submit to the law except when we face practical difficulties. In such cases, we explore our halakhic toolbox for ways to resolve our specific situation. For example, if a woman is the only witness to a crime, rather than setting the criminal free we utilize an alternative to testimony which does not fall under the Torah’s invalidation (see Rema, Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 35:14). We do not reject the law but sidestep it, and only because we have an urgent need and do not believe our doing so contradicts a Torah value (p. 42).
The issue of identifying Torah values occupies a good deal of R. Navon’s attention (ch. 1). His approach seems to me somewhat subjective but on the whole a noble effort to respect Torah values while acknowledging the complex moral dilemmas we face in doing so. He cautiously embraces the modern moral instinct while maintaining a fierce allegiance to and reverence for Torah.
III. Women’s Roles
The key question in discussing women’s ritual roles in Judaism is whether the values apparent in the Torah are to be embraced or tolerated. If they are merely tolerated, then when face a practical problem for which we have permission to creatively circumvent. If they are embraced, then we will uphold the Torah values even in the face of practical difficulties.
R. Navon explores different approaches to why the Torah exempts women from time-bound commandments, settling on the idea that women are more dedicated than men to child-rearing and therefore often unable to fulfill those commandments (ch. 2). It does not matter whether (most) women’s physical and emotional devotion to raising children, even today when men contribute more than previously and women accomplish more than ever outside the home, is innate or social. Our Torah society is good and its values are good, including its placement of the mother as the family’s chief childrearing officer. Yes, some women are different but the Torah’s commands do not deal with exceptions (see Moreh Nevukhim 3:34).
Men and women have different roles in Torah society. R. Navon rejects the egalitarian impulse as contrary to Judaism, an improper motivation and goal. Therefore, argues R. Navon, we should not look for loopholes and work-arounds to bypass the relevant laws. We must accept this Torah value. He adds that it is not our job to determine specific people’s motivations. However, they are tasked with introspection, evaluating whether they are fighting for religious equality, an improper goal, or spiritual opportunity.
IV. Do No Harm
If we embrace the Torah’s division of gender roles, what do we do with the practical problems? We need to find solutions within our values rather than circumvent halakhah. But even then, not everything permissible is advisable. We already mentioned that R. Navon invokes the saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I think a more apt saying to describe his approach is: “First, do no harm.” We treasure our Torah society. While practical problems may require changes, we have to be extremely careful not to damage our social fabric, not to break the chain of cultural continuity we maintain in the face of an invasive secular atmosphere. We cannot risk destroying the Torah culture that we have inherited.
R. Navon believes in marginal experimentation. Try a little something here and there, see what sticks and reject whatever yields negative consequences. For example, R. Navon believes that the practice of traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah is technically permitted but contrary to Torah values. It doesn’t damage our communal fabric so the experimentation is happening with little rabbinic opposition (p. 122). While he is willing to be proven wrong, R. Navon believes the practice will eventually be rejected by the people because it violates the Torah value of spending holidays with family.
Changes, even though entirely permissible, must be made slowly so they can be properly evaluated through experimentation. R. Navon considers the development of women’s Torah study, which he discusses at great length repeatedly, to be a case in point. Sarah Schenirer’s curriculum was not nearly as advanced as that in Michlalah today. Over decades, the experiment of women’s Torah study proved successful, integrating well with the Torah values of the community. No one is wise enough to see all the consequences of a specific change. Therefore, even if halakhically permissible, we have to move slowly. Not only will this prevent damage to our society but it will also confirm that a particular practice is consistent with Torah values.
I don’t believe R. Navon says this but I suggest that this also explains why isolated historical precedents are irrelevant to normative practice. If Jewish history rejected a practice, that generally (but not necessarily) means that the practice was deemed contrary to Torah values, perhaps also to Torah law by most authorities. If we allow freedom for experimentation, we must also recognize failure and let isolated practices fade into history’s trash bin.
V. New Women’s Roles
The Sages forbade calling women to the Torah. However, R. Navon says, if we really saw the need, we could find a way to bypass the rule, a loophole or work-around to allow the practice without contradicting the Talmud. The real question is whether we have sufficient cause to do so. R. Navon argues that there is not (p. 202). Jewish tradition strongly demands separation of men and women in prayer. Calling women to the Torah (and increasing women’s roles in leading prayer) contradict that value. Even if not formally forbidden, we must heed the Torah value, and certainly we must not look for ways to bypass a technical prohibition. (R. Navon adds that the issue of human dignity, kevod ha-beriyos, in preventing women from being called to the Torah is irrelevant. The insult is ideological, not instinctive. The very denial of ritual egalitarianism, a value contrary to the Torah, cannot be invoked to override a Torah rule. – p. 198)
We are a creative people and can find ways to permit a number of improper activities. R. Navon gives the example of a Yisrael who ascends to dukhen, recite the Priestly Blessing, with the Kohanim but only lifts his hands without saying anything. This bypasses the prohibition against a Yisrael dukhening but is still contrary to Torah values, and thus something we should discourage if not disallow. We can also find a way to allow gentiles to play musical instrument for Kabbalas Shabbos. But this also contradicts a Torah value by ushering in the day of rest with a forbidden act.
Yes, the Talmud (Chagigah 16b) permits women to lean on a sacrifice they bring to the Temple because it satisfies them, gives them nachas ru’ach. However, that case did not contradict a Torah value. Women have no obligation to do it but also no barrier. If there are Torah values which argue against a practice, such as with calling women to the Torah, then we cannot invoke nachas ru’ach (p. 200).
R. Navon’s approach, which I repeat is not mine, resolves a problem facing the more progressive view. Just because we find precedent for leniency in a variety of areas does not mean that we must always permit what people desire. We must determine, first of all, whether halakhah allows a practice or could be redefined to allow it. Second, even if a lenient avenue exists, we must weigh whether the practice follows Torah values or contradicts them. And finally, we must proceed with caution, wary that our evaluation may be wrong and that any radical change could permanently damage the Torah community.
The halakhic obstacles facing women rabbis, R. Navon suggests (p. 123ff), can be resolved with some creativity but the path to this new institution must be gradual. First women must start as halakhic experts of a single subject, as is occurring with Yoatzot. They must find partial or pseudo-rabbinic roles, such as the spiritual leader of a school. We must see how women fit into these roles and how the community reacts. Only after gradual changes, or more precisely gradual successes, can we see whether the institution of women rabbis will be acceptable to the sensitive values of the Orthodox community. A sudden change risks not only damaging our societal institutions and splitting our community but allowing a practice contrary to Torah values full admission to the tradition. Let time judge, not social activists.
Those calling for radical change are pessimists, sometimes even anarchists. They deride our communal institutions and leadership, decry our society’s values and demand a new world order. This attitude is profoundly un-Orthodox. Torah leaders are supposed to be conservative, first doing no harm. They desire continuity, recognizing the need for our communal institutions in order to transmit our tradition to future generations. They see the beauty and success of the Orthodox community. R. Navon calls for change, but only gradual and value-positive so we can ensure continuity of Torah for generations to come.